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Title: The Will Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203941h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2012 Date most recently updated: October 2012 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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AT 20 years of age, June Brandon was not only of a very nice disposition, but also an undeniably pretty girl. Of an aristocratic appearance, she had beautiful grey eyes, a good profile, and a faultless complexion.
She had no knowledge as to her parents, having been born in an apartment house in a poor suburb of North London. Her mother died within a few hours of her birth and left behind no clue to her identity.
No relatives coming forward to make inquiries and with only a few pounds found among the dead mother's effects, the baby was taken to a public orphanage, where she passed all her childhood and girlhood days. She had been christened June because she had been born in that month.
She was so obviously of a superior class to the other girls at the institution that, instead of being put out into domestic service when she was 16, she was placed in the infirmary as a nurse-probationer. Then, some two years later, a wealthy and titled patroness of the orphanage came to hear about her and suggested taking her as a nurse-attendant.
Accordingly, June was installed at Roding Hall, a large house near Brighton, to wait upon Lady Sandall, the childless and elderly widow of Sir James Sandall, who had been a high official in the Indian Civil Service.
A very bad-tempered woman, Lady Sandall was alternately kind and harsh to June. It pleased her to help on the girl's education by constant instruction and by encouraging her to study the best works in English literature.
Also, finding her so quick and intelligent, she was soon using her as a private secretary, giving her a private room to herself and letting her take all her meals with the housekeeper.
On the other hand, when in her bad moods, her ladyship was very hard on June, furious about the most trivial things and often finding fault most unjustly.
Masterful with everyone, her servants were greatly afraid of her, the one exception being Fordyce, the elderly butler who had served her and Sir James for nearly 30 years.
A refined and even distinguished-looking man, Fordyce seemed to have a restraining influence upon his mistress, and it was said she often consulted him about her private affairs.
JUST over 60 when June came to her, Lady Sandall was in a bad state of health, suffering a lot from her heart. She had been repeatedly warned by her doctor not to give way to her emotions; in other words, to try to control her tempers.
She had only two relatives, both nephews. One was in the forties, a well-to-do stockbroker in the city, but the other, Reggie Wynward, only 22, was the favored one, which was as it should have been, as he had no means at all. He was within a few months of qualifying as a medical man.
He was a good-looking, manly young fellow, but had to mind his steps very carefully to keep in the good graces of his irascible aunt.
June realised to the full how fortunate she had been to come to Lady Sandall, for after two years at the Hall she found she had so educated herself that she could well hold her own with any of the society callers who visited her employer.
So, putting up smilingly with the latter's frequent bouts of bad temper, she was really happy and contented, and she became happier still when young Wynward took to coming frequently to the Hall.
As was natural, the two fell in love, and very soon were making opportunities to meet alone, sometimes in the garden when Lady Sandall was in bed, and sometimes, upon much rarer occasions, when June had the day off and could spend it in London.
They had to be very careful, however, that Lady Sandall learnt nothing of what was going on, as she made no secret that, as her heir, she had ambitious matrimonial plans for Reggie.
ONCE, as if suspecting something, she warned him sharply against June. "You keep her at a distance, my boy," she ordered sternly, "and take care she doesn't lead you on. She's pretty enough, I admit, but I'm not going to have you mixed up with a girl of her history, or you'll lose every penny I intend to leave you. So you just take that in with no nonsense."
Reggie laughed it off, but about three months later the worst happened for the lovers, as late one night she caught Reggie in June's room.
Not feeling well, she had gone to bed early, but was unable to sleep. About 11 o'clock she had gone round to June's room intending to fetch her to give her some message. Opening the door unceremoniously, as was her wont, to her amazement she saw June sitting on Reggie's knee in an armchair drawn up before the fire.
For a long moment she stood thunderstruck, and then she shouted to Reggie: "You young blackguard!" To June she addressed a horrid word.
In consternation the two had sprung to their feet. "But it's quite all right, Aunt," Reggie called out. "We are properly married. We were married more than a month ago."
"Married!" screamed Lady Sandall. "Oh, you young fool!" She was almost choking with rage. "Then both of you get out of this house at once. You shan't remain here another minute, and I'll never have anything more to do with either of you. Get your things together instantly and go off."
And, standing in the doorway, she hurled every abusive word she could think of at them, rousing the whole house with her shouting. Getting rid of her at last, Reggie rang up for a taxi, and, in less than half an hour, he and June were being driven to a hotel.
The following morning, well before 8 o'clock, Lady Sandall was ringing up Mr. John Litchfield, her solicitor, in London, with the intention of ordering him to draw up a new will, leaving everything to her other nephew, Samuel Gorringe, but to her great annoyance she learnt he was out of town and would not be back for a couple of days.
Leaving nothing to chance, she immediately wrote out another will herself on the Hall notepaper. It read:
"I revoke all former wills. To my nephew, Reginald Wynward, I leave the sum of one shilling. To his wife, formerly known as June Brandon and for 18 years an inmate of the Balham Public Orphanage, an institution in the main for children born out of wedlock, I leave also one shilling towards the upkeep of the baby which is no doubt now well upon the way. All the rest of my estate and effects I leave to my nephew, Samuel Gorringe."
Fordyce and Mrs. Humphrey, the cook, were summoned to witness her signature, and then she had herself driven to the post office and despatched the will by registered letter to London. Returning home, she collapsed altogether, and her doctor was phoned for to come in urgent haste. Her heart was failing quickly, and, with no response to treatment, she passed away during the night.
The following week Mr. Litchfield sent for Reggie and told him about the new will. "I'm very sorry," he said, "but there will be only those shillings for you and your wife. The will she drew up herself is perfectly valid and the whole estate, about £65,000, goes to your cousin. It's an unjust and spiteful will, particularly as I know she promised your uncle just before he died to look after you. Still, there's no getting behind it."
REGGIE had a high opinion of Mr. Litchfield's abilities, and at once gave up all hope of getting anything. So he was very surprised when about a week later, a young Brighton solicitor, Charlie Jackson, came up to London, expressly to see him and suggest the will should be contested.
Jackson was barely 24 and, only a few months previously, had been admitted to the practice of the law. Reggie knew him very slightly, and only because it happened they belonged to the same tennis club.
"But I'm told I haven't a hope in the world," said Reggie.
"Oh, but I think you have," said the other. "That will shows spite, and, besides, your cousin may be willing to compromise."
"Not he!" scoffed Reggie. "We've always disliked each other." He shook his head. "No, Jackson, I'll not dispute it. I haven't the money for one thing."
"But never you mind about the money," said Jackson. "Of course, it's not ethical for me to take the case up on spec, but, if you're agreeable, I'll finance everything, and, if nothing comes of it, promise not to send you in any account." He laughed. "In any case, it'll be a ripping advertisement for me."
Upon these terms Reggie was quite agreeable and, accordingly, notice was served upon his cousin's solicitors that the will would be contested. When the day for the hearing arrived everyone in court was most amused at the idea of so boyish-looking a country solicitor pitting himself against the mighty Jarvis Romilly, one of the most eminent King's Counsel practising in the Probate Court. They were most curious as to exactly what line of action he was going to take. Lord Royston was presiding over the proceedings.
As a matter of formality, the deceased woman's will was first produced, and Mrs. Humphrey, the cook, went into the witness box to testify to having seen the dead woman put her signature to it.
"And you saw your mistress sign it," asked the K.C., "in the presence of your fellow-servant, Mr. Fordyce, and you put your signature in the presence of them both?"
"Yes, sir, I did," replied the cook, and the K.C. at once sat down.
Young Mr. Jackson rose to his feet. "And did Lady Sandall seem quite all right that morning?" he asked. "Quite capable of knowing what she was doing?"
"Oh, yes, sir," replied the cook. "She was not in a good temper, but she knew what she was doing all right." And Mr. Jackson, too, resumed his seat, while Mrs. Humphrey proceeded to leave the witness box and the court.
The butler was then called, and he stepped briskly into the box. He was asked if he, too, had witnessed Lady Sandall's signature in the presence of the cook. Upon his replying in the affirmative, the K.C. again sat down.
"Now, Mr. Fordyce," asked young Jackson, "did her ladyship appear to you to be in a state of unusual agitation when she affixed her signature?"
The butler considered. "Well, at any rate, sir," he replied, "she was not so the moment before she signed"—he smiled—"but, as I did not actually see her write her name, I cannot say what was exactly her condition at that very moment."
It did not seem that Mr. Jackson could believe the evidence of his ears. "What," he exclaimed, "you now tell us you did not see her sign the will?"
"Not actually, sir," said the butler, "because, just as she took up the pen to sign, I thought I heard the front door bell ring and went out to see. I wasn't gone a minute and, when I came back, both she and Cook had signed. That's how it was Mrs. Humphrey witnessed the signature before me. Otherwise I was to have signed first."
A STUNNED silence filled the court. It was as if all present had been turned into graven images. Mr. Jackson recovered first, and with grim smile, turned to his lordship.
"Then that concludes my case, my lord, and it will not be necessary for me to proceed further. The testament was not properly executed and therefore is invalid," and he plumped down into his seat.
Jarvis Romilly jumped to his feet. "I ask, my lord," he cried fiercely, "that the previous witness be detained before she has had time to leave the precincts of the court," and, upon a sign from the judge, an usher hurried out.
The K.C. turned menacingly to the butler. "Now, sir," he declaimed, "after having testified on oath that you saw deceased put her signature to the will—you now say you were not present when she signed."
The butler looked very frightened. "Yes, sir. I am sorry, sir. It was a mistake. But I thought I had witnessed the signing all right, as, when I came back, the ink on the other signatures was still wet."
The K.C. now spoke quietly, almost in silky tones. "And later," he asked, "you happened to mention to Mr. Wynward exactly what had taken place?"
"No, no, sir," cried Fordyce. "I never mentioned it to him at all. I haven't seen or spoken to him since that night he left the Hall," and no amount of questioning could now make him contradict himself.
Mrs. Humphrey was recalled. "Now, madam," said Romilly, with a pleasant smile, "you told us your mistress signed the will in your presence and that of Mr. Fordyce, too. That is so, is it not?"
"Yes, sir," replied the cook.
"Mr. Fordyce was actually standing at your side," went on the K.C.
"Yes, sir," replied the cook again and then, a startled look coining into her face, she added quickly, "No, sir, not quite all the time. I remember now that he went out for a moment to attend to the bell."
"Before your mistress signed?" asked Romilly, and the court was as hushed and still as the grave.
"Yes, sir," nodded the cook, "and before I signed, too. I recollect we had just written our names when he came back."
Most non-plussed at her corroboration of the butler's story, the great King's Council tried in every way to shake her testimony, until at last his lordship intervened. "I do not think, Mr. Romilly," he said, "it will be any good your further questioning the witness. She is undoubtedly speaking the truth. The will is invalid, and I accordingly decline to grant probate."
"But your lordship," protested the K.C., "the intention of the testator is so clear and it is not justice if——"
"But how often have I not had to explain," interrupted his lordship wearily, "that it is law I have to dispense in this court, and not necessarily justice. No, I decline to grant probate."
SO, under the previous will, Reggie Wynward succeeded to the estate, and one day some weeks later, Fordyce came to see him. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you," said Reggie. "I couldn't find out where you had gone, and I wanted to do something for you."
The butler shook his head. "No thank you, sir. I have all I need. Under my late master's will I came into £2,000 when her ladyship died or I left her service. I've only come now to clear up a few things."
"Well," said Reggie, "I have a lot to thank you for. But for your accidentally leaving the room when the will was being signed I should have only got that shilling."
"But it was no accident, sir," said the butler gravely. "I went out on purpose to invalidate the will. I only pretended to think I heard the bell, for, knowing her ladyship's impatience, I felt sure she would sign without waiting for me to come back."
Reggie was aghast. "But—but have you told this to anyone besides me?" he asked. A sudden light dawned upon him and his hand shot out accusingly. "A-ah. I know you have. You told Mr. Jackson."
Fordyce nodded. "Yes, sir, and we both thought it wisest not to mention it to you then, so that the other side should not be able to suggest there was any conspiracy between us."
"Conspiracy between us!" exclaimed the astounded Reggie. "What on earth do you mean? You had no interest in the will or me."
"Not so much perhaps in you, sir," said Fordyce, "but I certainly had an interest in your wife,"—he smiled drily—"as she happens to be my niece. No, no, she does not know it, and I have no wish she should. I only mention it now so that you shall know you have no reason to be ashamed of her. Her mother was none of those dreadful things her ladyship called out that night. We come of a good yeoman family, and my sister was a schoolteacher when the gentleman who was your wife's father met her."
"Were they married?" asked Reggie hoarsely.
"No, sir, but I am sure they would have been if young Lord Rutland—he was your wife's father—had not been killed in the hunting field before it was known what was going to happen." Fordyce's voice shook. "I was in India for 20 years and knew nothing of my poor sister's misfortune until I came back four years ago. Then, with great difficulty, I found out about June and traced her to the orphanage.
"No, it was not chance she came to Lady Sandall. I got her ladyship interested in the orphanage by pretending I knew the matron, and then I suggested she should engage June as her nurse-attendant."
The butler rose to go. "One thing more, sir. I have just posted to June, anonymously, of course, an old photograph of her father and mother taken at a county ball 24 years ago. You will recognise them both by their likeness to her. Good-bye, sir, and the best of happiness to you. I am sailing for Australia tomorrow, and neither of you will see me again," and, with a warm handshake, the two men parted.
That evening, in great excitement, June showed Reggie the photo which had just arrived. It was a flashlight one taken on a ballroom floor, and, under two of the dancers was written, 'Your father and mother, who are both dead.'
"I wonder who sent it," exclaimed June. "But oh, Reggie, aren't they both good looking. Do you really think they are my mother and father?"
And when her husband nodded emphatically, she went on, "But isn't it strange? My mother somehow reminds me of—whom do you think?—why, Fordyce!" And, after another long look at the photograph, Reggie agreed with her again.